What can I do if I work in a toxic workplace?

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Negative workplaces, toxic leaders, crazy co-workers – the news and internet are so full of stories about these things that, for many, they fade into the background. But those who work in a toxic environment face an unending cycle of challenging situations and discouragements.

Worker turnover because of “toxic” office cultures costs companies money. Since 2010, costs associated with voluntary employee turnover have nearly doubled from $331 billion to $617 billion according to the Work Institute’s 2019 Retention Report.

If you only had to deal with one inappropriate coworker or a bad boss, your days might be easier to manage. But when you’re facing a constantly stressful and degrading situation at work, it’s time to take action.

To do that, there are two key questions that need to be answered:

Do I really work in a toxic work environment?

(or is it just normally “bad” and stressful?)

What, if anything, can I do to make my work situation better?

(regardless of whether it is toxic or not?)

Do I really work in a toxic environment?

A Boomer may tell you, “Work is work. Get over it.” This is true, work takes effort and obstacles are encountered. But alternatively, work doesn’t have to be tortuous nor so demanding that we have no physical or emotional energy left for the other areas of our lives.

There is also the “people” factor to consider. All of us have weaknesses, personal quirks in how we think and view life, and we don’t always respond in the healthiest ways to stress in our lives. But there is also a continuum across people in how healthy or dysfunctional we behave in different situations. So, the question becomes: Is this person just temporarily stressed? Or, are they a jerk? Is this just a “growth area” they need to work on? Or, are they actually dysfunctional?

The complexity of trying to assess the multiple components that contribute to a “work environment” makes it difficult to simply answer “is my workplace toxic (or not)?” As a result, we created a brief online tool to assess seven different areas that have been found to contribute to the level of health in organizations: Communication, Honesty & Integrity, Negativity, Manipulation, Responsibility & Accountability, Feeling Valued, Cooperation.

The Ratings of Toxic Symptoms (ROTS) scale assesses each area and determines the level of unhealthiness reported, identifies the top three concern areas, and then provides practical suggestions and resources to help in each of those areas.

What, if anything, can I do to make my work situation better?

Let’s agree: Most of us don’t have the position, influence, or skills necessary to change our whole workplace culture. And, we certainly are not able to change the unhealthy individuals with whom we work.

So, what can we do?

First, I think we need to examine (and probably change) our view of culture.  Most of us tend to think about culture – whether in general, or specifically in our workplace – as being external to us. Culture is something that is external, around us, and we can’t affect it much.

In reality, culture is simply the aggregate of hundreds and thousands of interactions between individuals, including our daily communication with those around us.  One way to make a difference in one’s culture is to be intentional in how you interact with those around you – be positive (vs. complaining), focus on them as a person (vs. a resource to get a task done).

Secondly, we can be proactive rather than reactive. Begin collaborating with others around you to think, behave, communicate and respond differently than those thoughts / behaviors / responses that you don’t like and which have become part of the workplace culture.

Lastly, learn more about what makes workplaces unhealthy and the practical steps you can take to prevent or remediate toxicity in your workplace. Discussing whether or not or how much your workplace is toxic is tricky at best – it is not a topic you can typically talk about safely with others at work. But it is difficult to solve a problem if you don’t clearly understand what creates negative behaviors.

As a result, we have developed a series of online tutorials that individuals can go through at their own pace, to learn about the different factors that create a toxic work environment and we give specific suggestions for actions you can take both to survive the unhealthy surroundings, and help you realize what you can and cannot do to make the culture better.

The online Toxic Workplace Training Series addresses five areas:

*Understanding What Makes Workplaces Toxic

*Sick Systems: The Foundation for Toxic Workplaces

*Working for & Surviving a Toxic Leader

*Understanding & Dealing with Dysfunctional Colleagues

*Steps for Rising Above a Toxic Workplace

Each online course is approximately 30 minutes in length and can be viewed individually or as a complete series. *

I can confidently affirm that if you take these courses and apply the practical steps suggested, your daily work experience will be significantly more positive – whether that is through the changes you bring to your workplace, or through your ability to better cope with the unhealthy behaviors around you.

This article first appeared on Appreciation Blog.